RICHMOND, Va. – Not every vote in Jim Webb's narrow victory over incumbent Sen. George Allen can be attributed to Allen's verbal missteps on the campaign trail, but political experts agree that it provided an inadvertent boost to a wobbly candidacy.
"Allen's bad press gave Democrats a sense that this race could become in play if they funded it," said David Wasserman, director of communications at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "Webb probably made a smart move by refusing to attack Allen on his weaknesses and letting his campaign flaws speak for themselves."
Allen, widely viewed before the campaign as a heavy favorite to keep his Senate seat, held a vast fundraising advantage throughout the race, and by the end of June boasted a $10.4 million warchest, compared to Webb's $1.1 million.
Allen, however, gave Webb's campaign a series of widely-reported campaign gaffes — beginning with a racial slur aimed at a Webb volunteer of Indian descent — worth a fortune in political capital.
The red-hot rhetoric controversy also may have caused terminal damage to Allen's chances for a presidential candidacy, said Richard Murray, political science professor at the University of Houston.
“He took a race he was supposed to win easily and one, destroyed his presidential ambitions and two, risked losing his senate seat,” Murray said. “That’s quite a bad campaign.”
Webb's push to the front of the polls during the race’s final days can be directly attributed to Allen’s mistakes, Murray said.
Linda Hobgood, director of the University of Richmond’s Speech Center and a former White House speech writer, said on Election Day that she expected Virginia voters to stick to the issues critical to them, with Allen’s slip-ups garnering less attention as people thought originally.
“As the election nears, voters tend to concentrate on issues of intense worry, ‘bread-and-butter’ pocketbook issues, and matters of abiding concern,” Hobgood said.
The intense media pressure also found kinks in the Democratic challenger’s political armor.
Webb, a former Marine, embarrassingly discussed his 1979 essay titled “Women Can’t Fight” after five female U.S. Naval Academy graduates said the article prompted harassment by male midshipmen at the academy.
“Webb brought a lot of baggage to the table himself,” Murray said. “He’s had a lot of explaining to do, too, but he didn’t try to go back and change what he wrote 27 years ago.”
Allen’s struggles in general arose from how he dealt with the press and his inability to be upfront with voters, said Craig Brians, a professor of political science at Virginia Tech University.
“I think the fundamental difficulty that he has faced is that as a candidate, he’s never really been thoroughly tested,” Brians said. “He’s always been in races where he had some kind of natural advantage. He’s also never really faced the full brunt of a full-on electronic media campaign.”